Have you ever wanted to grow a fall garden, but thought it was impossible because you live in an area with a growing season of 90-100 days and often get early frosts in September?
I garden in Zone 3b near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in the heart of the Canadian Prairies, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not an impossible dream–although it does have some limitations. In this post, I’ll show you how I do it and a bit of my thought process behind it.
When Do You Start a Fall Garden?
It might sound early, but you need to start your fall garden on July 1st. We cold-climate gardeners just don’t have enough time to push it off any later.
In a perfect world, you could pull out one crop and put new seeds in immediately. In Zone 3, you’d need a perfect unicorn of a year for that to work. You’ll need to start your seeds indoors on July 1st and then move most of them outdoors once you’ve pulled out the crops.
In the past, when the season was typical, I planted kale and lettuce as soon as I pulled out my beans. It worked and those vegetables grew, but they were not the size that I hoped they would be by the time it got cool. In the end, they stopped growing.
In a different year, I started my fall garden in mid-July and had all my seedlings under a grow light because I didn’t have any growing space to direct seed. I transferred those plants outdoors once my beans, broccoli, and lettuce were done producing. I would’ve waited to direct seed as soon as those vegetables were finished; however, that year we had a very late start to spring, and everything was at least two weeks behind.
In a growing season of only 100 or so days, one doesn’t have the luxury of time to wait if the season is late. If you have a gardening situation where you have extra space or you can leave the beds empty until July 1st, you can just direct sow. For those who are seed starting, you’ll want to start July 1st so that the plants can be ready by September and sit and hold through the cold months.
What Can You Plant in a Fall Garden?
In short, you want to plant vegetables that reach maturity in around 50 days or less and are cool-weather-loving plants. Here are some examples to get you started:
- Pak Choi
- Bok Choi
Beans typically do not like cold weather, but you can find varieties that produce in 40 days, so those should work in theory. I would like to try broccoli, as well, but I haven’t found a variety with a short enough maturity date available in stores when I’ve needed it.
What Do You Do When it Freezes?
Where I live in Zone 3, it’s important to start watching the weather forecast starting the last week of August and to continually check it every single day. Whenever there is a risk of frost overnight, I cover my vegetables with old sheets.
You don’t have to worry about them getting crushed, and the sheets should be sufficient until the first hard frost, or when the temperature dips to around -5ºC/23ºF. Kale usually survives until frosts of around -8ºC to -10ºC in my experience, but everything else will die or require more intense protection.
I’ve experimented with plastic and cloth covers, as well as cold frames and have had varying success with each of them.
How Long Can You Keep Your Late Season Garden Going?
How long your fall garden lasts will depend on the weather and what methods of protection you give it. In a warmer fall, you can expect your garden to last until late October or early November with minimal protection. However, some years we get a surprise night of -30ºC/-22ºF. In that case, I doubt even the most protected cold frame would be able to save your vegetables.
Understanding the Growth Rate in Fall and Winter
Fall gardens do not grow like summer gardens.
If you’ve never tried to fall garden before you might be under the assumption that the growth rate in fall is the same as it is in spring and summer. This is not true. In the northern hemisphere (especially on the Canadian Prairies) the lack of light will slow the growth down to a crawl.
Once you pass the first frost of the season and then the Autumnal Equinox, everything will grow at a much slower rate, if at all. I like to think of autumn gardening as more of a preservation process than a growing process. This means that you need to grow vegetables that will get to their full size around the time of the first frost of the season.
For example, our goal would not be to start some lettuce seeds and have them grow into a really large lettuce plant in December. Our goal would be to start some lettuce seeds, have them reach a reasonable size in September, and have that lettuce sit and hold until November. Past November, unless you have a heated greenhouse (either some sort of passive solar setup or one that uses electricity), do not expect your plants to live.
In the case of lettuce, you should, at minimum, be keeping it with a frost cover on it. Kale is much heartier and can just be kept as is.
Will you try growing a fall garden this year?
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